Maybe they were distracted by their cellphones. That’s the only way to explain the split 7-6 vote in the Legislature’s Transportation Committee last week opposing a proposal to make Maine the 15th state to ban the use of hand-held cellphones by drivers.

If the lawmakers had been paying attention, they all would have voted to support the ban, sending it to the full Legislature with a unanimous recommendation. Fortunately, their colleagues in the House and Senate will get the chance this spring to pass the bill and make Maine’s roads safer.

Distracted driving is illegal in Maine, but unless the driver is typing or reading a text message, he can’t be cited for it unless he is also involved in an accident or commits another moving violation.

The bill, L.D. 185, sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, would let police officers pull over drivers if they are seen using their hand-held phones. Hands-free devices would still be permitted.

The reasons that this matters are obvious but bear repeating. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control identifies three types of distractions for drivers: visual – taking your eyes off the road; manual – taking your hands off the wheel; and cognitive – taking your mind off what you are doing. Using a cellphone while driving has the potential to accomplish all three.

The statistics are disturbing. About 3,300 Americans are killed in distracted-driving crashes every year, and many more are injured. A 2011 survey found that nearly 70 percent of drivers had reported using a cellphone while driving over the previous 30 days. That means more than two-thirds of the cars on the road could be operated by someone experiencing one or more types of driver distraction.

Some lawmakers who oppose the ban cite research that shows that talking on a hand-held phone is no more dangerous than using one that’s hands-free. Both devices, researchers say, require the same amount of mental focus to use.

While that may be true, there are risks other than talking and listening associated with using a phone while driving. Drivers are more likely to look at the keypad of a hand-held phone when dialing a number than they are when using a voice-operated device. And with the phone in his hand, a driver is more likely to be tempted to peek at text messages and emails, which is a deadly distraction.

Hands-free devices may remain a source of distraction, but just because a bill isn’t perfect doesn’t meant the Legislature should do nothing. They should take a step this year.

Seat belt laws were once controversial, but now most people buckle up without a second thought. This has saved millions of lives.

We need the same kind of culture change around the use of communications devices by drivers. Lawmakers should get their eyes on the road, their hands on the wheel and their minds on what’s at stake and pass this bill to make Maine safer.